Auckland's after-hours showdown

LAST CALL: A barmaid serves a pint at the Britomart Country Club in central Auckland.
LAST CALL: A barmaid serves a pint at the Britomart Country Club in central Auckland.

Under the cover of darkness, smiling people eat, drink, queue for nightclubs or greasy burgers and dance wildly as a gravel-voiced American intones: "Auckland: the show never stops".

Ignore Auckland Tourism's latest television advertisement. Of course it stops (and anyway, it doesn't show the fights or the drunks puking in shop doorways).

Right now, you can't get a drink in Auckland after 4am. And if the city's new alcohol policy is adopted, from 2015 you won't get one after 3am.

Great, say police, health services and city residents sick of the late-night fights and drunkenness every weekend. Retailers, supermarkets and publicans are, of course, dead against it.

An issue bubbling ever since a 2010 Law Commission Review suggested 2am closing has become a battle being waged in every major town in New Zealand, thanks to legislation last year that ended 24-hour drinking, brought in that 4am limit, and then allowed each local council to decide their own alcohol policy - covering pub and club opening hours and off-licence conditions.

Millions of dollars are at stake. Closing at 3am instead of 4am may be only one lost hour, but the Hospitality Association, which is mobilising the city's landlords, estimates that would cost them $24.3m a year in revenue - and that's not counting the venues that would be forced to close.

Nick McCaw, whose Britomart Hospitality group owns city-centre nightclub 1885, says that venue would be "right on the cusp" of closure, taking 30 jobs with it, and he's certain other publicans would say the same.

On the other side, police and health services would tell you of the human, social and public costs to such late-night opening.

The council's draft plans suggest a 3am city-centre close, 1am in the suburbs, a freeze on new off- licences in trouble spots and off- licence hours reduced to 9am until 10pm.

They opened up for consultation last Monday and the councillor leading the process, George Wood, says they have an "open mind"; however Wood, a former policeman, says he's been out on the city streets at 3am and "it's not a pretty sight". Perhaps, he ponders, it's being hit by the cold air on stepping outside that fires up young people.

Anyway, he says, the "genesis of this reform was some pretty ghastly happenings". He's "mindful" of the lost income - but also of the harm caused and the views of the 40,000 inner-city residents affected.

The residents, or at least the Auckland CBD Residents Association, led by 32-year city dweller Tim Coffey, want a 3am close and a 1am one-way door, and are petrified of a suburbs-to- city booze exodus at 1am.

Coffey says he's simply arguing for equality: his members pay the same rates, so "we expect our streets to be as clean and as free from drunks as anyone in Grey Lynn or Ranui or East Coast Bays - we're paying for it too".

Lobbying has begun. Simon Ansley, director of Pack Group, which owns 25 Auckland bars, cafes and restaurants, is close enough to the mayor, Len Brown, to recently give him a guided tour of the city's nightlife districts.

He took the chance to state his case: "I'd be lying to say that I haven't, but he doesn't really want to pick a fight with [other] councillors on an issue he feels council is pretty united on."

Ansley argues the plan runs counter to the city's unitary plan, which calls for thriving metropolitan centres, and Auckland Tourism [ATEED]'s "show never stops" brand.

"I understand the police position, and the council position, I am just trying to put our own perspective on it," he says.

"I think police have done a very good PR job with the tagline 'nothing good ever happens after 3am' . . . we need an educated discussion. Is one hour worth the risk to the overall economy?"

Despite its advert, ATEED isn't playing.

In a statement, chief executive Brett O'Riley says: "The tagline 'The Show Never Stops' was never intended to be taken literally."

O'Riley says he recognises early closing could mean job losses and reduced revenue for publicans, but says there's no evidence to suggest it would dent Auckland's appeal as a tourist destination.

"You don't go to Paris for its licensing hours - if you do, you're a pretty sad puppy," scoffs Coffey. "I believe the policymakers have been captured by the alcohol and hospitality industries."

The supermarket industry is also on the warpath. A pitch was sent to the council by Foodstuffs' legal counsel, Mike Brooker, which said it was "very uncomfortable" with the draft and arguing against the cuts in hours and freeze on new off-licences.

Brooker advanced a rather unique argument that because supermarkets sold very little alcohol between 7am and 9am, "we do not want to see our customers detrimentally impacted and inconvenienced for no gain".

Brooker also warned the freeze would stop new supermarkets being built in those areas, and they would halt a plan to demolish and replace one existing supermarket.

He argued for exemption because "we clearly bring other benefits to the community, whilst bottle stores only bring alcohol".

Foodstuffs presented a survey showing 62 per cent of customers didn't want a change in hours, rising to 88 per cent among those who shopped before 9am.

Brooker referred calls to Foodstuffs' spokeswoman Antoinette Shallue, who said it couldn't comment while it considered its formal submission. Later, she said yes, it thought early-morning customers shouldn't be inconvenienced, and yes, the freeze on new licences would "influence" new developments.

The Hospitality Association's pitch, meanwhile, is that to really combat the city's late-night ills you would make public drunkenness illegal, introduce minimum prices for supermarket alcohol sales and make the drinking age - not the purchase age - 18.

They say that because three- quarters of alcohol consumed is from off-licences, peak offending times are between midnight and 2am (and a 3am closing time in Sydney saw an increase in assaults in the Kings' Cross nightlife district), so therefore a 3am closing time doesn't make sense.

They also blame "pre-loading" - where people get drunk at home before coming to town - and "side-loading" - where they get drunk in parked cars then go to bars - for the problems. (Incidentally, police and council agree, in part, with this, and say they are getting more aggressive in fining offenders.) Essentially, it's not really their problem.

McCaw, whose group owns 11 city nightspots, is even more direct. He is, he says, "quite fired up".

"I honestly believe the safest place to be after midnight in Auckland City is inside a licensed premise - I am absolutely certain of this fact," he says. The problem is outside - and therefore is the council and police's problem.

"I find it incredibly difficult that they are laying some of the responsibility for the unsafeness of the streets at the feet of [publicans]...inside is my responsibility, and goddamn it, I take it seriously because if I don't, I lose my business."

Actually, given the ratio of bouncers to cops, bar owners are doing more to guard the late-night streets.

And, "if people drank everywhere the way they drink in my bars we would have a very functional attitude to drinking".

Both sides throw statistics and studies around to support their positions - the police mention a Justice Department study showing that after 3am, the harm caused by alcohol is 8.9 time higher than at midnight, and community safety surveys showing the majority of people feel unsafe on city streets after dark.

An acknowledged expert, professor Doug Sellman of the National Addictions Centre at Otago University says there is no magic bullet to solve society's problems with alcohol.

But several things do work - included in a plan called the 5+ Solution: raise prices, raise the purchase age, reduce accessibility, reduce advertising, and increase drink-drive penalties.

Cutting licensing hours, he says, was scored a three out of four in terms of efficacy by the World Health Organisation.

Yes, says Sellman, publicans are right that cheap off- licence alcohol is an issue, but have their "heads in the sand" if they think they aren't a factor.

Auckland's senior policeman, Mike Clement, uses the same phrase. Clement speaks plainly. Police are happy with the 3am close.

The old 24-hour system was "ridiculous". The proliferation of off-licences in the city is "crazy". Yes, pubs are part of the problem. He was out at 4am a fortnight ago and saw people comatose on the footpaths. It's witnessing the results of late-night drunken assaults has made him staunch.

"You don't have to see more than one or two victims to see how silly this has become," he says.

But Clement isn't entirely happy with the plans, either.

He's worried that a 1am close in suburban centres like Takapuna will cause a big influx of drunks into the city at that time. He wants a one-way door policy after 1am. And he "cannot believe" a proposal to let "good operators" apply for extended hours until 5am, saying it "does not make sense".

All Auckland and Waikato health boards argue for a stricter approach still, agreeing a joint position signed by their senior emergency doctors: a 1am close for pubs, 9pm for off-licences and a cut in the number of both to slash late-night hospital admissions.

It is, Clement concludes, "the opportunity of a generation to have a community say 'this is not acceptable any more'."

Sunday Star Times